Finding Faith: Muslim, Jewish populations thrive in South County

By Tim Pallesen

A new $3 million mosque that opened last month is evidence of the rapidly growing Muslim population in southern Palm Beach County.
    The 30,000-square-foot Islamic Center of Boca Raton will serve as a house of prayer, education center and community gathering place.
    The complex at 3500 NW Fifth Ave. was designed with blue-green domes and a minaret as its landmark next to Florida Atlantic University.
    The mosque will house classrooms, administrative offices and a courtyard for prayer as the first phase of a $4.5 million expansion beside the Garden of Sahaba Academy, a Sunni school.
    The new complex includes eight apartments expected to house FAU students.
    The mosque was necessary after hundreds of Muslims were forced to pray outdoors when they couldn’t fit in the main hall at the school.    The Muslim community in Boca Raton may be growing by 20 percent a year, according to estimtes.
    Many young families are attracted to FAU for study. The university is convenient across the street from the mosque, school and community center.
    The Jewish community has flourished in Boca Raton, too.
    So much so that a new committee says it is large enough to have its own community bus so young adults can connect with their Jewish heritage in Israel.  
    The committee’s first fundraiser at Flywheel-A-Thon on Aug. 12 raised $7,500 toward the $60,000 cost to send 40 young adults to tour Israel on a “Boca bus.”
    The popular Birthright Israel trips have taken south county residents to Israel before through their university Hillels or other organizations. But travelers share those buses with young people from other Jewish communities.
    A 2006 survey showed Palm Beach County has the fourth-largest Jewish population in the U.S., with 255,000 Jews.
Local boosters say the Jewish community here now can support its own contingent to Israel with enough young people to fill its own bus.
“By traveling together, our young adults will share this experience of a lifetime with their friends and neighbors, as their families connect in a very special way,” said Suzy Garfinkle, a Birthright parent who co-chaired the event.
Birthright development officer Michelle Waranch Ben-Aviv said young people who experience the special journey of Jewish self-discovery together will become the future Jewish leaders in Boca Raton.
“While embracing the land and people of Israel, participants develop a passion for Jewish culture that many had not previously been exposed to,” Ben-Aviv said. “They return home inspired by this extraordinary experience and ready to be part of their local Jewish community.”
 Organizers say no fundraising will occur during the Jewish High Holy Days that begin with Rosh Hashanah at sunset on Sept. 16 and continue through Oct. 9. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is on Sept. 25.   
The Holy Days are a time spent with families for reflection, and the “Boca bus” initiative will continue after Oct. 9, a spokeswoman said.
    The sisters of late disco queen Donna Summer will perform at Old School Square in a free Sept. 29 outdoor concert to celebrate the second anniversary of The Avenue Church in Delray Beach.
    Donna, Mary and Dara were raised devout Christians as the daughters of a Boston butcher and schoolteacher. Donna’s debut performance came at church at age 10.
    Mary and Dara Gaines Bernard became Donna’s backup singers in 1975 when her hit single Love to Love You Baby was released. Their music was the driving beat of the disco era in the late 1970s. The three sisters toured together through 1987.
    Donna died at age 63 on May 15. Mary, Dara and two other sisters sang We’ve Come This Far By Faith at her funeral in Nashville.
    Mary, who lives in Coral Springs, sings in the music ministry at Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale. Dara lives in Atlanta.
    The free Night of Wonder event, 7-9 p.m. Sept. 29, is open to the public. The sale of snacks and beverages will benefit the orphan care ministry at The Avenue Church.
    The 25 congregations working together as Family Promise have already shown they have heart. Now they might show they can play golf!
    The South County churches and synagogues take turns to give emergency food, shelter and counseling to families.
    Proceeds from the Family Promise Golf Tournament on Oct. 28 at the Boca Greens Country Club will benefit the interfaith mission.
    Teams pay $600 if they enter by Sept. 15. Individuals pay $160. Call tournament chairman Ken Tolchin at 212-8029 for information.
    “Family Promise has 25 participating congregations,” Tolchin calculated. “If everybody steps up with a team, we would have 100 golfers right there.”

Tim Pallesen writes about people of faith, their congregations, causes and community events. Email him at

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